Seeking the Journey: Cheryl Strayed’s Visit to Nathan Hale High School

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

The walk I took with Cheryl Strayed last week was not very much like the one she did so famously. It lasted about five minutes, our journey being one from the main office of Nathan Hale High School to its library, where the writer was about to speak to the room full of eleventh grade students quietly waiting for her there. Normally, a high school isn’t a place one goes looking for scenic views. We passed through a common area tinged with the scent of lunches and adolescent bodies, enclosed on one side by a wall made of windows. As we walked, we caught a hummingbird hovering on the other side of the glass, its metallic-green flashing across the top row of panes. It seemed only fitting to stop and watch this speckle of wildness for a moment, hanging in the air.

Inside the library, the writer, who would later that night leave hundreds of adults at Benaroya Hall awestruck by both her words and presence, casually walked up to the power point slide welcoming her to Nathan Hale and talked to the students with the casualness of neighbor or a friend of a friend. She spoke of her own experience with a Writers in the Schools program in Minnesota, working with a poet who visited her school for one week during the year and made her “feel as though someone in the room really knew what I was about.” While few in the audience admitted to seeing their future careers in the arts, she knowingly warned them, “That doesn’t mean you won’t hear that call in yourself at a later time.”

However, most of Strayed’s advice to the eleventh graders was intended for them not only as writers but as people on the brink of their lives really beginning, like the moment Strayed found herself in at the end of her hike, when she crossed the Bridge of the Gods. As she explained the way the events she chronicled in Wild “changed her back into the person I always knew I was,” she went on, “I remembered thinking I’d ruined my life, and now I realize I was so wrong. It is so hard to really wreck your life. You always have the power to take it back again”—advice that silenced the room.

The insight the writer shared that stayed with me the most came towards the end of her visit. The words were some of the smallest and simplest, but from the force with which they were said, it was clear they were also among the truest: “Seek the journey. Not just when you are seventeen, or twenty-two. Seek it your whole life.” Those are the ones I hope the high school students take the most to heart and the ones I hope to think of again, when the green flash of a hummingbird stops me, for a moment.

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